In search of a new life: Conversations on a rail journey from Volgograd to Sochi
The best thing about a long railway journey is the ability to meet interesting people with even more interesting stories.
When I suggested to my travel companion that we take the train from Volgograd to Sochi, a journey that ran almost parallel to the Volga-Don Canal, she was reluctant. “23 hours in a train? What if there are vodka drinking men in our coupe, who eat fried chicken and make the coupe smell?”
18 years ago we travelled from Sakhalin to the Valaam Monastery (in northwestern Russia) on a 45-day journey without taking a single flight. But my friend no longer had the energy for even mini-adventures. She, of course, had a sudden change of heart when she saw the cost of an air ticket!
So there we were, leaving Volgograd, a city we had developed quite a special liking for, and setting off on a journey in southern Russia.
Ticket and identity check done, we walked into our coupe of the Krasnoyarsk-Adler Express, a train that connected a cold Siberian city to a warm resort town on the Black Sea. “Hello, I am Anya,” said the bright-eyed and energetic young girl who looked a lot older than the 7-year old she was. “We are moving to Goryachi Khlyuch (literally hot spring in Russian),” a small town that is a few hours away from Sochi. Before the train left Volgograd, Anya told us about her mother who was standing in the corridor of the wagon and her father who was driving to the town with more of the family’s belongings.
“It looks like my daughter has told you our life story,” the dark haired woman in her early 40s told us with a laugh. The mother and daughter did not like living in a village of just 2,000 in the Orenburg region on the border with Kazakhstan, but the father was a strong believer of the Russian saying: Где родился, там и пригодился (Transliteration: “Gde rodilsya, tam I prigodilsya”), which means a person is of best use where he or she was born. For years, the father resisted the idea of moving to a warmer climate in another part of Russia but he threw in the towel when Covid struck his village and several people were sick or died. “It was terrible there,” Anya’s mother told us. “We lost relatives, friends… and so many people we knew fell seriously ill.”
A long life journey
Anya’s mother was by no means the stereotypical young woman from a Russian village. Sophisticated and well read, she knew far more about the world beyond Siberia than many people from big Russian cities. Born in Soviet Uzbekistan in the early 1980s, she had to leave the country with her parents when Uzbek nationalists declared after the fall of the Soviet Union that Uzbekistan belonged to the Uzbeks!
The family crossed over by road to Kazakstan and then to the village in the Orenburg region, where they lived for three decades after the Soviet collapse. I could see both the romance and longing in her green eyes, when she spoke of Samarkhand, Buhkara and Khiva. These places were as much a part of her heritage as they were of someone who was ethnic Uzbek, but once the Soviet Union fell, she became an erstwhile coloniser in a newly-independent country.
Village life Siberia was fraught with the irritations that would make any sophisticated person go crazy. Anya’s mother hated the fact that every single person seemed to know each other and were in full tune with the events of each villager’s life.
Mother and daughter spoke about their new flat in Goryachi Khlyuch and how they would be in a bigger town, but still close to nature. Their faces lit up when they talked about being free of extreme cold and enjoying a more moderate climate. Within two hours, Anya and her mother felt like people we had known all our lives.
Sharing chocolate, tea and fruits, we spoke of travel during the pandemic, vaccine mandates and about the greater meaning of life.
Long halt at Kropotkin
By 9 pm, our train which left Volgograd at 8:30 am, reached the charming and quiet town of Kropotkin. The attendant in our wagon told us that we had a 96-minute halt at the station called Kavkazskaya. As my friend and I left the station and went out for dinner, Anya began to worry about us. She told her mother that their nice neighbours might miss the train and lose their luggage as well. As soon as she saw us, there was a big expression of relief on the little girl’s face.
We had taken turns watching each other’s belongings when the train stopped for long scheduled halts.
After the train left Kropotkin, we switched off the lights so that Anya and her mother could sleep. The train would reach their station at 2:30 am, and they definitely needed some sleep, as their apartment was a bit of a long taxi ride away from the station.
Their alarm woke them and us up. Then I saw the huge suitcases they were carrying on their journey to a better life. The train had a 40-minute halt in Goryachi Khlyuch, so I took their suitcases off. But the station entrance was a platform away. So, there we were carrying 3 large suitcases up a long flight of steps and then down to the point where they could be loaded into a taxi.
While helping them with their bags, the thought suddenly struck me- What if the halt was much less than 40 minutes? Would I miss getting on back the train and end up getting stuck there until I found an alternate mode of getting back to Sochi? And my friend on the train would also be worried sick or so I thought! Through this sequence of moving the luggage, I had lost track of time.
Once the bags were close to the cab, I bid Anya and her mother goodbye and wished them all the best with their new life. When the little girl asked how she could contact me, I told her that she could look me up by copying my name from the cover of a personally autographed book I gave her. The young girl was keen to learn English and even visit India just so that she could watch Indian dances and see elephants in person.
The winds were blowing colder and I started to get nervous, but both mother and daughter wanted to hug me like I was a close friend of many years. These were embraces of gratitude, warm wishes and an understanding that at some point in our journeys, our paths would cross.
After this farewell, I heard a train horn and ran up the stairs and on the bridge and down the stairs to get to my wagon. As it turned out, the horn was from a different train!
I asked my friend if I took longer than she expected to get back. She just smiled at me and said semi-seriously that she would have pulled the chain if I was late. Relieved that we did not need any such dramatic or drastic action, we drank some water and decided to call it a night. Sochi was four hours away and some sleep was better than nothing.
As the train pulled away, I sent out silent good wishes to Anya and her mother. May it be happily ever after for that young and beautiful family.